Since 1985, the first Monday of October has marked World Habitat Day. The United Nations created the designation as an occasion to reflect on the state of the world's cities and towns and on the right adequate shelter for all, and to "remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat."
Human habitat is a broad term, encompassing the totality of the environment that human beings need to survive, interact with each other, and thrive. But no matter the definition, it includes a safe, secure place to live: a home.
This year the global observance of World Habitat Day is being hosted in Shanghai, and the theme is "Better City, Better Life." Here in the United States, the occasion is a timely reminder of the importance of home in our cities and in our communities. In the last week, we've seen several major mortgage companies halt their foreclosure practices at the news that tens of thousands of foreclosure documents were not being adequately reviewed before they were signed.
This is just one recent example of the devastation that the housing and foreclosure crises continue to wreak here in the United States. Across the country, homelessness continues to skyrocket, as families and individuals lose their homes to the combined effects of foreclosure and unemployment. Moreover, despite a new federal law that protects renters in foreclosed properties, lenders continue to ignore the law, putting renters at risk of homelessness through no fault of their own.
Indeed, the United States lags far behind most other nations in recognizing the basic human right to adequate housing. While the United States was a leader in the development of key human rights instruments, it has failed to ratify key treaties that would make that right real here at home. To cite just one example, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes basic guarantees like the right to education and housing for children. The other country is Somalia, which lacks a functioning government.
Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope. Last year, for the first time, the global observance of World Habitat Day took place in the United States, hosted by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. In remarks for the occasion, President Obama noted that the days came at a critical moment: "Millions of families in our nation and all nations have lost their homes or fear that they will lose their homes some time in the future. World Habitat Day is a chance for us to help make sure that doesn't happen. To build a future where all our families can find a place to call home."
One year later, the Obama Administration has taken some steps forward. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has issued the first ever Federal Strategic Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness. New rights, such as the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act have been extended. Funding provided through the Stimulus created the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program, helping thousands of people avoid homelessness or find housing.
But none of these steps has been sufficient to stem the crisis. And as long as housing is discretionary -- as long as it is not a right -- the disconnect between the enormity of the need and the size of the response is likely to continue.That's why advocacy for the human right to housing is critical to efforts to end homelessness.
Raising awareness is key to that advocacy, and October is quickly becoming an important month for doing so. After World Habitat Day, October 10 is World Homeless Day, and on October 14, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty will host the 12th Annual McKinney-Vento Awards, where Secretary Donovan will present the keynote address, "Ending Homelessness in Our Time." For more information about our event, and to join us, click here.
Remember, today is World Habitat Day. Join us in reflecting on what our world would look like if everyone had a place to call home. Then, help make it happen.
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